HARRISBURG, Pa. -- The Pennsylvania Supreme Court's chief justice wants local court officials across the state to report the number of medical malpractice claims filed in the past four years and monitor new cases as they come in.
The request came in the form of a letter sent last week to president judges in the state's 60 judicial districts by the state court administrator, Zygmont A. Pines.
Although it concerns one of the hottest political issues in the state, court officials refused to release the letter on grounds that it is "private administrative correspondence," said Art Heinz, spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
"This is a starting point. This is a step in the process of gathering as much information as we can that's out there so that a thoughtful and careful analysis can be done," Heinz said.
Heinz said the letters, sent on behalf of Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy, went out in response to a reform proposal Gov. Ed Rendell made last year.
Adams County Prothonotary Patricia Funt, whose office handled about 1,300 new lawsuits last year, said it will be difficult to comply with the letter.
She said the computer system can weed out the divorce and child-custody cases, but then the chore of separating the medical malpractice lawsuits from all remaining litigation will have to be done by hand. Funt has seven employees.
It's unclear whether counties will be forced to produce historical data if doing so presents a hardship.
"It's my understanding that the letter specifically says that if the county is not tracking these types of cases, that it ought to begin doing so," Heinz said. The letter also seeks detail about how many medical malpractice cases courts are transferring from one jurisdiction to another, but it does not ask for information about the size of malpractice verdicts.
The administrative office also has begun to research what policies are in place in other states, Heinz said.
Amy Kelchner, spokeswoman for the governor's Office of Health Care Reform, said the information could help the Supreme Court evaluate other reform proposals Rendell has asked it to implement.
"They're just trying to get a handle on the magnitude of the situation," she said. "There's no easy way to get the data right now, so this would be an excellent start to begin to study the problem."
Doctors' groups have complained that skyrocketing insurance rates are forcing them to leave the state and have lobbied aggressively for reforms that would lessen their insurance burden.
A package of bills passed by the Legislature last month included a 25-cent per-pack increase on the cigarette tax to subsidize physicians' fees for MCare, the state-run insurance fund that covers catastrophic malpractice claims. Doctors who accept the state aid for 2003 must repay the money if they leave Pennsylvania before the end of this year.